Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Activists turn 'hacktivists' on the web

By Chris Vallance
BBC News

Computer keyboard artwork

Among activists who hack to make a point, some stay firmly on the right side of the law but others push the idea of civil disobedience to the limits.

Whatever the Chaos Computer Club's name suggests, Europe's largest hacker group is not intent on bedlam.

For CCC member Frank Rieger, the word hacking - the process of reconfiguring or reprogramming a system to do things that its inventor never intended - needs to be reclaimed, and stripped of negative connotations.

One of his club's main purposes is teaching gifted young people how to use hacking skills to bring about political change.

"We are trying to show people the beauty of technology, and how exciting it can be to find out new stuff and then do good things with that," he says.

This so-called "hacktivism" has been at the core of the German hacker community for more than 25 years.

For example, in 2008 the club obtained the then German interior minister Wolfgang Schauble's fingerprints from a glass, and published them in a format designed to fool fingerprint readers.

The aim was to point out the vulnerability of proposals for biometric identity systems.

But while the Chaos Computer Club's principles rule out attacks against websites, some other groups regard politically motivated attacks on computer systems as a legitimate form of online civil disobedience.

Data flood

Earlier this year the group Anonymous launched a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) on Australian government websites, protesting at plans to filter some kinds of pornography.

The attacks, which temporarily blocked access to some official websites, were condemned by the Australian government as "totally irresponsible".

A DDoS attack occurs when a website is bombarded by requests for pages - often by a network of computers under the control of the hacker - effectively taking it offline. They are illegal in many jurisdictions.

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But a member of Anonymous told the BBC that in his view the attacks were a legitimate form of protest.

"When truck drivers go on strike they block all the roads. It's the same principle," said the man who identified himself as "coldblood".

Anonymous is an extremely loose-knit group, but has historically had associations with some of the message boards of 4chan.

A young American Christopher "moot" Poole founded the imageboard, which was originally set up to allow people to post images from Japanese animation and cartoons.

Members of 4chan have been linked to various high profile protest groups such as Project Chanology, a movement that protests against the practices of the Church of Scientology.

Its members have also been linked to various "attacks" on YouTube, where the site has been flooded with porn to protest about certain videos being taken down.

Mr Poole does not support the method of political action adopted by Anonymous members.

"I'm fundamentally opposed to what the Australian government is doing but even then I think that needs to be rectified through the legislature not through DDoS attacks," he told the BBC World Service.

"A lot of these people who are in this group are younger. This is their way of venting their frustration with the system and trying to make a point and get some press around it."

Legal line

Mr Rieger is also opposed to using techniques like DDoS, which in his view effectively limit free speech online.

Frank Rieger of the Chaos Computer Club
We try to always work in a way that we can always be on the same table with these people
Frank Rieger

He says there is a consensus among the main politically engaged hacker groups, which has persisted since the 1990s, against launching cyber-attacks.

"We will not participate in the games nation states play in cyberspace," he said.

Even without launching cyber-attacks, activists may still find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

So is it possible to distinguish online civil disobedience and activism from the actions of cybercriminals and others with more sinister motives?

In the view of Dr Athina Karatzogianni, a researcher at the University of Hull who studies cyber conflict, it is in part down to how open activists are about what they are doing.

"If you have open identities and goals and the logic of why this happening is explained, then they are different from hacks that are motivated by darker objectives", she says.

But for Mr Rieger, it is better to try and work within the law.

The club is now engaged in mainstream politics providing expert opinions for the German constitutional court on a number of issues.

"We try to work in a way that we can always be on the same table with these people", he said.



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